For those unfamiliar with Gough Whitlam and his short-lived reformist Labor Party government, 2023 is a milestone. Labor, under Whitlam’s leadership, came to power close to 50 years ago in early December 1972 after 23 years in opposition, and controversially dismissed in November of 1975. In its short tenure this government was to change the face of Australia forever by implementing a raft of seismic reforms. These included universal health provision and free tertiary education. Whitlam and his government also had an ongoing commitment to libraries. This commitment was based on a view that ‘Libraries that are free, open and accessible are just as much bastions of freedom as universities or parliaments.’ (1975 p.1). An informed electorate was essential to participatory government and information and education were foundational for improving people’s lives. To Whitlam, libraries, archives and other cultural institutions had a significant role to play and his government’s policies reflected this.
In 1972 Australian public libraries were considered to be in decline, facing the threat of irrelevance in an increasingly technological age and had been neglected by successive state and municipal levels of government. This threatened the Whitlam government’s vision for an information-connected and informed electorate. As part of his agenda Whitlam proposed various strategies to address this including introducing Freedom of Information Legislation to the Australian Parliament in 1974, the opening of the first purpose-built repository for Commonwealth archives in 1975, and the establishment of a parliamentary committee of inquiry into the state of Australia’s public libraries. The finding of the Committee of Inquiry into Public Libraries(1976) while ill-timed, have shaped attitudes towards public library provision in Australia to this day.
Whitlam’s commitment to the ideal of free and open access as part of the democratic contract was ongoing and he continued to be a presence in Australia’s library community throughout his life. In 1975 he provided the opening address of the Australian Library Association (ALA) biennial conference. In 1985 he delivered the Dulcie Stretton lecture to mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Munn-Pitt Report (1935) at the State Library of NSW and was to later publish this speech in the Australian Library Journal (1986) (now the Journal of the library and Information Association). He played a key role while ambassador to UNESCO between 1983-1986 in promoting free cultural and information exchange, and in recognition of this ongoing support and contribution to libraries in Australia he was made a Redmond Barry fellow of the Australian Library Association (now the Australian Library and Information Association) in 1995. This legacy is one worth further exploration.
Australian Committee of Inquiry into Public Libraries & Horton, A. R. (1976). Public libraries in Australia : report of the Committee of Inquiry into Public Libraries. Government Printer, Canberra.
Horton, Allan (1976) ’Libraries are great mate!’ ‘But they could be greater’: A report on the public libraries in Australia, Australian Library Promotion Council, Melbourne.
Munn, Ralph & Pitt, Ernest R. (Ernest Roland), 1877-1957 & Australian Council for Educational Research & Carnegie Corporation of New York (1935). Australian libraries : a survey of conditions and suggestions for their improvement. Australian Council for Educational Research, Melbourne
Whitlam, E.G. (1975). Official Opening. In Proceeding of the 18th conference, Melbourne, August 1975. Library Association of Australia, pp 1-4.
Whitlam. E. G. (1986). The Munn-Pitt Report—50 Years on, The Australian Library Journal, 35:1 pp 40-45 DOI 10/00049670.1986.10755539